Minnesota Mom Convicted of Murdering Her 6-Year-Old Son After Going to Gun Range for Shooting Practice

Julissa Thaler shot her son Eli Hart nine times with a shotgun in 2022

Julissa Thaler, Eli Hart
Julissa Thaler, Eli Hart. Photo: Hennepin County Jail; GoFundMe

A Minnesota mother was convicted Wednesday of murdering her 6-year-old son in 2022 and driving with his body in the trunk of her car.

Julissa Thaler, 28, of Spring Park, was on trial for shooting her son, kindergartner Eli Hart, nine times with a shotgun inside her sedan, say prosecutors.

On Wednesday, a jury found her guilty of one count each of first-degree premeditated murder and second-degree murder after deliberating for two hours, Kare 11, CBS Minnesota and the Star Tribune report.

She automatically received a life sentence without parole for the premeditated murder conviction, KARE 11 reports.

"On behalf of Eli's family, Tory Hart would like to thank the jury, the court, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office and justice partners for their good work," Eli's father, Tory Hart, said in a statement, KARE 11 reports. "This is a tragic and heartbreaking event that could have been avoided if Eli had never been returned to a dangerous home."

The murder came to light on May 20, 2022, when police in Orono pulled Thaler over after she was spotted driving her sedan on a bare metal rim without one of its tires and with a shattered a rear window.

Officers said they noticed blood inside the car.

Eli Hart

Later, when they looked in the trunk of her car, they found her son's body inside, say police.

Thaler was arrested shortly after and initially charged with second-degree murder.

After turning down two offers from prosecutors to plead guilty to second-degree murder, including on Jan. 30, her charges were upgraded to first-degree murder, Fox 9 reported.

"I would never do that to my son," she said in court on Jan. 30 when rejecting the plea deal, Fox 9 reported. "I want to go to trial."

Jury selection began on Jan. 30. Opening statements began Friday and closing statements were made Wednesday morning.

During his testimony on Friday, Hart said his son was popular at his elementary school and dreamed of becoming a firefighter.

"He was always really happy, outgoing, always full of energy, always," Hart testified, Fox 9 reports.

During the trial, jurors heard about how the upbeat, well-liked kindergartner spent his final hours.

Thaler's ex-boyfriend, Robert Pikkarainen, testified that on the night of May 19, 2022, she let Eli stay up late and then grew frustrated when he became rowdy, KARE 11 reports.

She was hitting him," he testified. "Then Eli was hitting her and they were fighting."

He said she briefly left her apartment, put her shotgun into her car, returned and "grabbed Eli and went downstairs," KARE 11 reports.

When he woke up the next day and asked her where she went, she gave a vague answer. "She was kind of like, 'I had to go do something,'" he testified.

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Thaler was fighting for custody of Eli with Hart when the boy was killed, according to court records obtained by PEOPLE.

She lost custody of Eli in Jan. 2021 after the Dakota County Social Services Department learned that she was "presenting with psychosis and hearing voices telling her to kill herself," court documents show, the Star Tribune reported.

According to a GoFundMe campaign organized to help cover Eli's funeral costs, the boy spent 11 months living with extended family members. But in December 2021, a judge allowed Eli to return to his mother's care for a home trial.

"Due to many red flags Eli's mother was showing, Tory tried extremely hard to get custody of Eli," the fundraiser description said. "Numerous parties made many statements to CPS, fearing that mom would harm Eli if full custody were returned. Sadly, full custody was returned on May 10, 2022."

Authorities noted that Thaler "bought a shotgun and learned how to use it" shortly after Hart filed papers asking the court for full custody, the Star Tribune reported.

Shortly afterward, she allegedly went to a shooting range with a friend to learn how to fire the gun, Fox 9 reported.

After the verdict, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty released a statement saying, "Eli's brutal murder is one of the most horrific cases I have encountered in 30 years working in the criminal legal system.

"Nothing will ever fill the emptiness Eli's father and other loved ones now live with every day, but I'm hopeful this verdict will make it just a bit easier to remember Eli as the toothless, happy, smiling little boy we have seen in photos."

Thaler is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Feb. 16.

Her attorney did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.

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